Director: Yen Tan
Stars: Adam Neal Smith, Alessandro Calza, Ethel Yung
Review by Matthew Rettenmund
This meditative film, informed by Asian cinema’s muted colors and static wide shots, captures the aftermath of a young man’s death and the deep bond that forms between his longtime best friend and a love-seeker from Italy whom the dead man had planned to meet in person after a year-long Internet courtship.
The Internet aspect seeps from every bit of this project—the filmmakers met when star and co-screenwriter Alessandro Calza wrote Tan a fan e-mail following his film Happy Birthday (2002) and they collaborated on the writing of this film without ever meeting. Also, Calza arrived at the screening with a handsome friend he’d met online. It all fits, because Ciao—both hello and good-bye in Italian—is ultimately about change of the hi-speed and dial-up variety, and about what remains unmoved in its wake.
Adorable Adam Neal Smith (a cross between Ben Affleck and Scott Peterson—sorry, but he is cute) stars as Jeff, who is charged with organizing the effects of his friend Mark after a car accident claims his life. Answering his e-mails, he discovers that Mark has secretly been sharing parts of his life with Andrea (Calza), an Italian man who (somewhat unbelievably) can’t find anyone to his liking in his own country. At first simply breaking the news and wishing him well, Jeff’s curiosity about this mysterious part of his friend’s life leads him to invite Andrea to make his trip after all. It could be to honor Mark in a way or to graciously allow this stranger a chance to grieve properly, but more likely it is to discover something about a man he had unrequited feelings for, and whom he thought he’d known inside out.
Smith’s performance is uncanny in that he is often flat, almost monotone, in a way that perfectly suggests the shell-shock his character feels, and yet his eyes are at the same time wonderfully expressive. When he unexpectedly smiles or, eventually, bursts into tears, we’ve always known the emotion was there behind the façade that’s so controlled he can’t even tell his own doctor that his life has been turned upside-down, not even when she asks him directly.
Calza’s Andrea comes across as a neat counterpoint, gently leading Jeff out of his comfort zone and generously sharing details of his special correspondence with Mark that would otherwise have been unknown to him forever. When they do finally connect intimately, it’s not quite the ending some audiences may be picturing—but it’s a powerful four-minute scene that you won’t be able to shake.
The film’s weakest link is Ethel Lung as Jeff’s step-sister. Her first scene with Jeff is painfully stilted, breaking the film’s almost hypnotically simple tone. She recovers with a later scene, in which her character drops by to check out Andrea; here, her humor is a welcome acceleration in the film’s energy.
Speaking of that, I have to say I had a hard time with the film at first, feeling it to be slow going. I’m sure anyone who dislikes the film would complain that it’s “boring” because it includes a lot of conversation and day-to-day minutiae meant to convey how life goes on even when it’s diminished by one.
It also contains scenic shots that are held uncomfortably long and several scenes where some of the action occurs out of view. These choices are impossible to ignore, but very possible to embrace given a little time. Ciao’s vibe is mesmerizingly consistent and so apart from what we’re used to finding in mainstream films it took me a minute to reset. Once I was on board, I found it to be a beautiful piece of work, moving and fresh. It reminded me of something Todd Haynes might do, and also a bit of the 2006 film Broken Sky.
I hope Yen Tan and his film Ciao will remind other filmmakers to do what comes naturally instead of tailoring every project to what he or she believes the mainstream will bear. If everyone takes the easy way out, you can say ciao to films that do anything more than titillate and help us kill time until we ourselves are somebody’s fond memories.